Before his name became synonymous with arty, raunchy erotica, young Giovanni Brass wanted to be Michelangelo Antonioni. Antonioni’s controversial, challenging sort-of, not-really giallo Blow-Up blew up around the same time Brass was entering his formative cinematic years. All of Europe was being swept up by a burgeoning youth counter-culture, and emerging filmmakers of the time were not interested in making the types of films that had been made before, or making them in the way they’d been made before. Just as composer Ennio Morricone and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza were experimenting with new ways of making music, so too were filmmakers beginning to apply elements of experimental filmmaking — fractured narratives, jarring cinematography, vague plots, stylized acting, bold visual and narrative choices — to more mainstream, commercial fare aimed at a more turned on, younger crowd; the post-War generation challenging the values, authority, and wisdom of the elders who had led Europe into two horrific conflicts that engulfed the world. In the 1960s, London of all places suddenly found itself the epicenter of this counter-culture, though outposts were to be found in Rome (which had ruled the roost in the 1950s and still supplied the world with many of the best filmmakers), Paris, Berlin, and come the spring of 1967, Prague. It was in this exciting, uncertain time that cinema produced some of its greatest iconoclasts or saw them at the peak of their game: Rossellini, Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Giovanni Brass is rarely mentioned in the company of such directors. If it does happen, it’s usually to draw a stark contrast. And yet, for a brief time in the 1960s, he seemed on a trajectory that would place him among these pioneers of new cinema. He was excited about the same things and made films about the same things: pop art, rock ‘n’ roll, sex, rebellion, the anti-war movement, the golden age of Hollywood, counter-culture. But something never quite clicked for Brass, something that would have cemented his position among the elites. Maybe he was too imitative when he should have been innovative. Maybe he didn’t have the right attitude, the right manifesto, the right social life. Maybe he didn’t go to the right party. Maybe he was too willing to play in the sandbox of exploitation cinema or was too commercial. Whatever the case, Giovanni Brass never became Michelangelo Antonioni. But he certainly made a name for himself. That name was Tinto Brass, and it’s possible that his most famous film is better known than anything Antonioni directed — which is ironic, considering that Brass labored to have his name removed from the movie after bitter conflicts with both the screenwriter, Gore Vidal, and the producer, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who was looking to imitate Playboy‘s highbrow cinematic success with Macbeth (directed by Roman Polanski) by producing his own classy arty film, only with more people peeing on each other.
But before all that, before Salon Kitty redirected his career toward sex films and before Caligula became the most infamous movie in the world, Tinto Brass was just another idealistic young director looking to capture the zeitgeist of the 1960s. His 1967 film Deadly Sweet was inspired and influenced by Antonioni’s Blow-Up but also markedly different. For one, it lacks that film’s sense of disillusionment. It also lacks that film’s self-control. Deadly Sweet is experimental but still commercial. Bleak but still bubbly and colorful. Tinto Brass seems to think that Swinging London is still, you know, swinging. Thus he turns in a decidedly less somber film despite its downbeat conclusion. It has as much in common with Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much as it does Blow-Up. It’s often sold as a giallo, but that is really stretching the definition of the genre. Blow-Up was barely maybe giallo, and Deadly Sweet is one further removed. It has elements that would become common tropes of giallo (amateur sleuths, people acting weird, a fascination with the world of art and fashion, murder), but then so does Charade, and few people argue that Charade should be considered a giallo. But then, casting a wide net when it comes to defining genres usually benefits said genre, or invalidates the concept of genre altogether, either of which is a satisfactory result.
Based very loosely on a giallo novel by Sergio Donati (Brass apparently wasn’t that big a fan of the book), Deadly Sweet begins in a lively Soho club where struggling actor Bernard (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who went on to bigger acclaim in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist) is checking out beautiful young Jane (Ewa Aulin, in the weird sort-of giallo Death Laid an Egg and the infamous star-studded disaster Candy a year later). Jane and her brother Jerome are making the most of London nightlife while trying to get over the death of their father and the fact that their mother Martha (Vira Silenti, Fellini’s I Vitelloni as well as the fantastic sword and sandal fantasy The Witch’s Curse) is catting around with a sleazy art dealer. Bored with the dance floor, Bernard wanders around the club and stumbles upon a dead body; murdered, obviously. Standing over the body is Jane, insisting that she had nothing to do with it. Deadly Sweet might not quite be giallo, but the two do what any giallo couple does when they discover a body: they try to solve the murder themselves. Jane is sure it has something to do with a blackmail and a mysterious photo connected to her mother. Bernard seems to have nothing better to do, and since Jane is beautiful, he’s happy to go along for the ride even when it results in his getting accosted by armed thugs (including future Darth Vader, David Prowse), chased all over London, shot at, and in a surprisingly grueling scene, having his eyelashes yanked out.
Although thinly written, Trintignant and Aulin play their respective roles with charm. They are, however, second fiddle to Tinto Brass’ kinetic direction and editing. Antonioni might have been his inspiration, but Brass was not making an attempt to imitate Antonioni’s style. Antonioni was famous, after all, for lingering shots, for empty space and long stretches of silence, for emotional distance. Brass, in contrast, is a kid in a candy store as he follows Jane and Bernard on their increasingly surreal odyssey through the London underground. Deadly Sweet is a riot of sound and motion. Most of the time, Brass has no artistic reason for doing this. He just wants to capture it all (Brass explains away his “arty” use of occasional black and white as a matter of necessity; in some scenes they didn’t have enough lighting to properly expose color film). Not having enough money to stage manage and meticulously craft everything gives Brass’ film a chaotic sense of time and place. There’s an earnest excitement, and as a result Deadly Sweet becomes a surprisingly effective document of the times. When we visit someone’s apartment, it looks like someone’s apartment, with crap piled all over the place. The camera wanders away from the character and gazes at the many pop culture accoutrements that clutter these spaces: posters for bands, for Batman, for famous models. In one scene, as Bernard is about to get the tar beat out of him by thugs, he looks to his side and spies a poster of Mad magazine spokesman Alfred E. Neuman and the slogan, “What, me worry?”
Aside from the murder and the amateur sleuthing, the element that ties Deadly Sweet most closely to the giallo with which it playfully flirts is how it explores the concept of perception and appearance. From the very start, Bernard is ready to believe Jane simply because she’s young and pretty. It never even occurs to him to question her assertion that she is innocent of the murder. As psychologists have pointed out, we want to believe pretty. Conversely, her handsome brother Jerome is set up to be a useless, selfish stoner; possibly a killer. But he quickly becomes a valuable asset, even storming a crumbling tenement with Bernard to rescue Jane from a gang of kidnappers (which is also the film’s only sleazy moment, as Jane is stripped to her lingerie and pawed at). At other points, the movie throws characters at us without cluing us in to who they are or what they’re after. The photo mentioned in the beginning of the film is more or less forgotten halfway through, that particular McGuffin apparently not able to keep up with Tinto Brass’ as he sprints through London counter-culture.
There are a few moments in which Brass wears his adoration of Blow-Up on his sleeve (including the overall plot revolving around a mysterious photograph, a tryst on a photographer’s set, and most obviously, a bit where he just films a Blow-Up poster for a few seconds), but beyond those Deadly Sweet just has a different mood. There’s an air of jaded weariness about the characters in Blow-Up, a sense that we are picking up the story at a point where, as they say, the kicks keep getting harder to find. Deadly Sweet, on the other hand, is practically gleeful. It’s almost innocent, despite a couple flashes of nudity and the aforementioned “Jane menaced in her underwear” scene. Considering the type of highbrow smut Tinto Brass would become known for after the Caligula debacle, Deadly Sweet is innocuous, fluffy, and, well, kind of sweet. True, the end is a downer, but isn’t the end of the party always a bit of a downer?
Admittedly, one could trim ten minutes or so from the film and have something with a slightly brisker pace, but even so, Deadly Sweet breezes along its merry away and keeps one entertained. Especially if one really wants to go on a sightseeing tour of London in 1967 with Tinto Brass as your guide and Ewa Aulin as your accomplice. The finale occurs at a big concert, and rather than turning his camera on the crowd and dwelling on the self-centered futility of it all, Tinto Brass seems to think it’s a pretty fun happening. Despite the murders, the chases, and the occasional little person with a machine pistol (a cameo from the great Skip Martin, who doesn’t get to speak but looks cool in an overcoat and sunglasses), Jane and Bernard seem to be having a lot of fun. They fight, they flee, they have sex, they pull thrilling rescues, and through it all there is a joyful sort of energy drawn from the kooky counter-culture around them. Maybe that was the problem that kept Brass from ever achieving those heights of arthouse acclaim. He just wasn’t cynical enough.